Matthew Wilkens has a fascinating LARB review of what sounds like a fascinating book: Macroanalysis: Digital Methods and Literary History, by Matthew L. Jockers. Wilkens starts by discussing a fashionable topic, the “biases of the canon.” I used to be impatient with it when I saw it primarily as a club with which people were attempting to knock great writers out of their well-deserved places of respect, but the more I read early Russian literature, the more I realize how arbitrary the canon is. There’s no good reason for the oblivion into which writers like Narezhny and Veltman have fallen; they would provide much fodder for scholarship and much enjoyment for the ordinary reader. It’s just the luck of the draw. But he takes it in a very interesting direction:
But changing the canon — or even a proliferation of canons, as literary studies has fractured into a collection of increasingly well-defined subfields — takes us only so far. Readers are finite creatures, capable of making their way through only a tiny fraction of the millions of books published over the centuries. The problem, at this sort of scale, has less to do with canonical selection bias than it does with our inevitable ignorance of nearly everything that has ever been written. […] So how can we know the outlines of literary history without reading an impossible number of books?
One answer would be “to change the way we work, to preserve large-scale claims by ending the singular identification of literary study with close reading.” The important word there is “singular”; he’s not saying we should give up on close reading but that we should supplement it with the kind of quantitative studies featured in the book under review. I won’t try to summarize his summary of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, but I agree with him that we’re going to be hearing a lot more about this approach, and I’m guessing it’s going to produce some exciting results. (Thanks, Paul!)